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Valley of the Dulls

San Fernando Valley theater is the secret elephant burial ground of '70s television. Like stumbling across a hidden jungle grove piled high with the carcasses of passed-on pachyderms, attending a play in the Valley can be a stomach-churning experience of sagging, gray flesh and teeth so long they're easily mistaken for tusks.

The Valley, a trough of land north of Los Angeles famous mostly for being a trough of land north of Lost Angeles, is riddled with innumerable tiny, strip-mall theaters, all with pinching seats covered in faded velour and pony-tailed ushers selling home-made, buck-a-pop cookies in the "lobby." The play is always a smallish, off-Broadway throw-away, recognizable enough to draw a crowd, but not so big as to require sets or costumes or a real cast or anything.

And while bad theater is easy enough to find anywhere in the country, what makes the Valley experience unique for on-the-cheap patrons-of-the-arts is that the productions inevitably star a gone-to-seed '70s TV has-been.

It turns out they don't shoot the actors when their shows get canceled. They release them into the Valley.

Case in point: Neil Simon's "Rumors," currently playing at the Whitefire Theatre on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. "Starring," the sign out front says, "Bernie Kopell!"

Y'know, Bernie Kopell. Doc Bricker on "The Love Boat." Siegfried on "Get Smart." That Bernie Kopell.

Haven't seen him in a while.

(And I'm not even going to mention that the play was directed by Richard Kline, whom those of you without a reason for living will recognize as Larry Dallas from "Three's Company.")

Time, it can safely be said, has not been kind to Mr. Kopell. Far from the jaunty, horny ship's physician or the sinister, cigarette-holder-chomping KAOS agent, Bernie now looks mostly just tired. His hair is thinning and his voice is shot and he plays the lead in "Rumors" as fed-up and weary instead of antic and explosive. Somehow, I don't think he's doing a character.

And yet the audience -- median age: 57 -- loved him. As sad as being a has-been from a show that almost exclusively featured has-beens is, he still commanded the enthusiasm of everyone in the audience who got the senior discount. The aura of TV still shone around him for those who actually remember the "Love Boat" as something other than childhood trauma.

Perhaps TV touches people in a certain, undeniable way. Perhaps it builds a bridge between an actor and an audience that can last years -- decades -- beyond the life of a show, allowing good will and fond memories to flow effortlessly. Perhaps it's a doorway to a simpler, better time.

Or perhaps they were just a bunch of lonely old geeks. I mean, come on. It's Bernie Kopell.


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